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The Future of Central Asian Water Diplomacy

Aerial view of a section of the Aral Sea

This June, policymakers, academics, and those in the private sector will convene in Tajikistan for the Dushanbe Water Process. In partnership with the United Nations, the country is hosting biennial conferences between 2018-2028; this June will mark the third international high level conference on the topic.

This gathering comes amid intensifying water challenges for the region. The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest in the world, has now dwindled to 10% of its original size. 

The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which have long been Central Asia’s primary water source for domestic and agricultural use, face severe depletion.

Low-income agricultural communities are struggling with the impacts of water scarcity both on their lives and livelihoods. Up to a third of the region’s population lacks access to safe water, and in 2022, 17.4% faced moderate or severe food insecurity. And while there is little credible evidence of a regional or bilateral “water war” in the region, there have been localized armed conflicts linked to water in the Ferghana valley and on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border.

As these challenges mount, politicians in the region have increasingly recognized the importance of transboundary water cooperation, leveraging water as a diplomatic tool. This growing openness to international cooperation has the potential to not only address the heightened water security challenges of the region, but also improve regional stability and cooperation as a whole.

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Contextualizing Central Asian Water Challenges

Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet government divided a previously unified Turkic land along ethnic lines into the five states we see today (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) while centralizing control to Moscow. This had implications for water sharing post-1991 independence. Young governments were forced to deal with the legacy of centralized water control and borders that they had not agreed upon themselves. This led to increased protectionism and a resistance to work with one another.

A series of regional and bilateral water agreements in the 1990s and early 2000s, including the 1992 Almaty agreement that established an Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC), allocated water sharing between the five states. However, none of these agreements, including the comprehensive Almaty agreement, were particularly effective or sustainable, proving the challenges of water cooperation in a newly independent region.

Furthermore, the central Soviet government took part in rapid agricultural expansion in Central Asia starting in the 1950s, promoting large-scale production of cotton monoculture over traditional crops. Cotton is water-intensive, and Soviet diversion of water resources to the crop’s production limited water availability for personal use. This legacy continues today – agriculture accounts for 80% of the region’s water use, most of which is used for cotton.

While the legacy of Soviet rule looms large in Central Asia, post-independence governance challenges also play a role in modern challenges. After 1991, Central Asian leadership saw a trend of authoritarianism. These leaders lacked the political will to solve regional water challenges both domestically and internationally. As a result, up to 37% of all of Central Asia’s water is lost from mismanagement and obsolete Soviet-era technologies, and weak transboundary agreements remain largely ineffective.

Emerging Challenges

Cooperation over water resources is further challenged in the region by climate change, geopolitical threats such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The climate crisis is particularly pronounced in Central Asia, where the glaciers of the Himalayas feed the Amu and Syr Darya rivers. Glacier surface area has decreased 30% over the past 50-60 years and contributed to flooding and landslides that have led to lives lost, and millions of dollars in damages. Beyond glacial melt, inconsistent rainfall and increasing temperatures also play a role in water dynamics. By 2050, the Amu and Syr Darya are expected to decrease 10-15% in volume if the world continues to warm at its current rate.

Geopolitical instability is also compounding Central Asian water security challenges. Afghanistan has been actively excluded from regional water-sharing agreements due to its protracted instability, despite the country sharing significant resources with the five “stans.” Notably, the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2021 poses additional challenges to regional water dynamics. As a part of a larger push for infrastructure development, the Taliban is actively constructing the Qosh Tepa canal, a 115-mile megaproject that aims to divert 15-20% of the Amu Darya’s river from Central Asia to northern Afghanistan for agricultural production. While the Central Asian response has thus far been muted, the full impacts of the canal remain to be seen.

Beyond its Soviet legacy, Russia has long been a regional partner for Central Asian states in diplomacy, development, and security efforts. Moscow has been more focused on maintaining stability and hegemony in the region rather than supporting water and food security efforts. Russia’s war in Ukraine has both shifted Russian support from Central Asia and, to a certain extent, delegitimized Moscow as a potential development partner. As the states increasingly see Russia’s inconsistent and unstable foreign policy, they will likely turn to other partners such as China, the United States, and Iran for support on combating water security challenges.

Momentum in Water Diplomacy

Despite these challenges, the Central Asian states have become increasingly willing and able to participate in international conferences and water agreements, as exemplified by this month’s Dushanbe Water Process.

However, it may not be enough. Tajikistan’s willingness to lead in global water diplomacy could come at the expense of its regional engagement. With Central Asian states looking to the international community for legitimacy in the climate and water space, it may diminish their focus on issues at home or with their neighbors.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan—which lie downstream on the Amu Darya river and are thus more vulnerable to water depletion or active diversion—have also signaled a greater willingness for water diplomacy. Uzbekistan in particular, after the death of authoritarian leader Islam Karimov in 2016, has shown interest in leading in bilateral and regional water diplomacy efforts, even proposing updates to the Almaty agreement. Turkmenistan has shown similar initiative to Tajikistan in its plan to develop a UN water strategy. Kazakhstan has promoted regional integration through trade agreements, and proposed a Central Asian water-energy consortium.

The Future of Water in Central Asia

Examples from around the world prove that transboundary water agreements can address water-sharing challenges while simultaneously prompting trade agreements and broader stability. At a minimum, water cooperation in Central Asia would help address the region’s food and water security. But given the states’ challenges with economic underdevelopment, authoritarianism, drug trafficking, and fundamentalism to varying extents over the past 30 years, using water as a diplomacy tool also has the potential to facilitate stabilization.

The region has the potential to become a water diplomacy success story. If Central Asian governments can meaningfully harness rhetorical willingness into concrete action—updating the Almaty agreement, improving regional water infrastructure and agricultural techniques and including rural communities in decision-making—the region can move towards greater regional security and integration.

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